“Never judge a book by its cover” is a saying I mostly agree with, but when it comes to Italian cuisine abroad, I tend to become the judgmental prig I try so hard not to be. Every time I spot a cafe that claims to serve “spagetti” and “cappucino”, I can’t help but wonder: what are the odds that anyone in there can cook decent Italian food, when they didn’t even take the time to learn the names of its simplest staples? So when I discovered that last week’s Zomato meetup would take place at Acciuga (Italian for “anchovy”), I felt relieved. A name that made sense, plus an Italian chef with a passion for sourcing ingredients from Italy, plus some seriously tempting (and correctly spelt) stuff on the menu. Surely that had to mean something?
Acciuga welcomed our party of food bloggers with a cognac, grape marmalade, basil and fizz cocktail called “The Madness of Gold”; golden in colour as you would expect, but not as rich in flavour as its unusual recipe had me hoping. Much more than the drink, I enjoyed the nibbles it came with: I kept grabbing bites of onion focaccia (soft as can be, and drizzled with lashings of olive oil) and frisceu (savoury dough fritters with sage) like there was no tomorrow, turning what began as an innocent snack into a downright meal…before the three-course dinner I’d come for. As replenishments kept coming, at a steady pace and in generous portions, I nodded in approval. This is how we do aperitivo in Italy; take that, London bars.
Between one mouthful and the other, I enjoyed listening to chef Guglielmo Arnulfo, who debunked many of the myths about Italian food that all Italians abroad have heard at least once in their lifetime (only once, for the incredibly lucky). No, Italian cuisine is not all about carbs (and if I once again hear you ask if we eat pasta and pizza every day, it’ll be the Madness of Iris you’ll experience). Yes, each region has its own local cuisine – and no two ways of cooking are the same. So much so, that the culinary tradition of chef Arnulfo’s native Liguria is one I know little about; much richer in fresh fish, and poorer in seasonal vegetables, than the meaty, peasant fare of my landlocked hometown.
Inside Acciuga’s buzzing kitchen, chef Arnulfo demonstrated one of his signature dishes: a starter of poached egg with fresh truffle. Its Italian name, innocently laid out on the menu above a list of ingredients in English, had me burst in a loud laugh. As we call poached eggs “uova in camicia” (i.e. “eggs wearing a shirt”), it’s only fair that these egg yolks, wrapped up in a shell of whisked and baked egg white, go by the name of “uova in camicia di forza”. That’s “eggs wearing a straitjacket” to you.
By the time the cooking demonstration ended, and despite the load of fried stuff I’d just devoured, I was eager to tuck into my dinner; luckily enough, starters began landing on our table only a few minutes after we took our seats. Acciuga’s fried anchovies were great both on their own, and dipped into the spicy tomato sauce they came with, nicely presented in a shiny tin.
The dish that followed took my dinner to a whole new level. It was the first time I had proper, handmade filled pasta in London; another league comparing to the ravioli I sometimes get at the supermarket, out of laziness or vain hope to find a taste of home. Acciuga’s agnolotti del plin (a filled pasta dish typical of the North-West of Italy) paired a rich pork and beef filling with a simple, delicate vegetable sauce, adding flavour to the meat without smothering its taste. The only niggle? The portion was unforgivably tiny. If I were to return to Acciuga, I’d expect them to fill the whole plate at the very least.
As I scoffed the last agnolotto on my plate, I thought I’d got away with my gluttony. I felt sated, but not overly full; and then, dessert landed in front of me. While the menu had led me to expect a pistachio and raspberry millefeuille slice, with layers of flaky pastry and lots of fruit, the near absence of pastry and berries only baffled me for a second: the time to realise how lovely the pistachio cream was.
Every spoonful carried a different note: at times a stronger hint of pistachio, at times a sugary memory of the custard that comes with a classic millefeuille. A little too sugary, perhaps; a blessing in disguise, for it stopped me from shamelessly asking for more. As I headed back home, I felt the fullest I’ve been in months. I know people who would feel horrified at the thought of this much food, but I couldn’t bring myself to regret a single bite. That’s how well Acciuga fed me.
343 Kensington High Street
London, W8 6NW
(nearest tube station: High Street Kensington)
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12.00 – 14.30 (lunch) and 19.00 – 22.30 (dinner)
+44 (0) 2076033888
Note: Zomato invited me to dine at Acciuga as part of a blogger meetup. All opinions are my own.